Tag Archives: RN

Richard Bell Davies VC

Richard Bell Davies, a career naval officer, learnt to fly at his own expense in 1913 at the age of  27. He then transferred to the naval wing of the Royal Flying Corps, which was taken under the control of the Admiralty as the Royal Naval Air Service on 1 July 1914.

On 27 August he was one of the 10 pilots of the Eastchurch Squadron of the RNAS, commanded by Wing Commander Charles Samson, who flew their aircraft to Ostend. After three days they were ordered to return to England via Dunkirk. One of the aircraft crashed on landing at Dunkirk. This delayed the flight home and on 1 September they were ordered to remain at Dunkirk in order to operate against enemy airships and aircraft and to carry reconnaissance missions. As well as aircraft, they were equipped with armed motor cars that raided the enemy’s flanks.[1]

During the First Battle of Ypres, lasting from 19 October to 22 November 1914, the RNAS aircraft carried out reconnaissance missions for the army. Davies attacked German aircraft in the air on three separate occasions, but all managed to land behind their own lines.[2]

Davies and Flight Lieutenant Richard Peirse carried out a number of bombing raids on the German U-boat bases at Ostend and Zeebrugge. Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Order for an attack on Zeebrugge on 23 January 1915. Their citations, from naval-history.net, stated that:

Squadron Commander Richard Bell Davies

Flight Lieutenant Richard Edmund Charles Peirse

These Officers have repeatedly attacked the German submarine station at Ostend and Zeebrugge, being subjected on each occasion to heavy and accurate fire, their machines being frequently hit. In particular, on 23rd January, they each discharged eight bombs in an attack upon submarines alongside the mole at Zeebrugge, flying down to close range. At the outset of this flight Lieutenant Davies was severely wounded by a bullet in. the thigh, but nevertheless he accomplished his task, handling his machine for an hour with great skill in spite of pain and loss of blood.

Davies held the rank of Lieutenant in the RN and the appointment of Squadron Commander in the RNAS.

Davies was later sent to the Dardanelles. In October 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers opening up a railway supply line from Germany to the Ottoman Empire. RNAS aircraft and seaplanes made several bombing raids on a rail bridge over the river Maritza south of Kulelli and a rail junction at Ferrijik. During an attack on the latter on 19 November Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Smylie’s Henri Farman was forced to land by rifle fire. Davies landed his aircraft and rescued Smylie in perhaps the first ever combat search and rescue mission. The citation for his Victoria Cross and Smylie’s Distinguished Service Cross, again from naval-history.net, stated that:

29423 – 31 DECEMBER 1915

Admiralty, 1st January, 1916.

The KING (is) pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Squadron-Commander Richard Bell Davies, D.S.O., R.N., and of the Distinguished Service Cross to Flight Sub-Lieutenant Gilbert Formby Smylie, R.N., in recognition of their behaviour in the following circumstances:

On the 19th November these two officers carried out an air attack on Ferrijik Junction. Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie’s machine was received by very heavy fire and brought down. The pilot planed down over the station, releasing all his bombs except one, which failed to drop, simultaneously at the station from a very low altitude. Thence he continued his descent into the marsh. On alighting he saw the one unexploded bomb, and set fire to his machine, knowing that the bomb would ensure its destruction. He then proceeded towards Turkish territory.

At this moment he perceived Squadron-Commander Davies descending, and fearing that he would come down near the burning machine and thus risk destruction from the bomb, Flight Sub-Lieutenant Smylie ran back and from a short distance exploded the bomb by means of a pistol bullet. Squadron-Commander Davies descended at a safe distance from the burning machine, took up Sub-Lieutenant Smylie, in spite of the near approach of a party of the enemy, and returned to the aerodrome, a feat of airmanship that can seldom have been equalled for skill and gallantry.

Davies was flying a Nieuport 10, a two seater reconnaissance aircraft that had been converted into a single seater fighter by covering the front cockpit. Smylie managed to squeeze past the controls into the front cockpit.

Davies was later awarded Air Force Cross and the French Croix de Guerre. He joined the Royal Air Force when it was formed by a merger of the RFC and the RNAS on 1 April 1918, but was one of the few former members of the RNAS to return to the RN after the war. He served in a mixture of staff appointments connected with aviation and sea going post between the wars. When the RN regained control of the Fleet Air Arm in 1939 Davies was appointed Rear Admiral, Naval Stations, commanding its shore bases.

He retired with the rank of Vice Admiral in May 1941, but then joined the Royal Naval Reserve with the rank of Commander, serving as a Convoy Commodore. They were senior Merchant Navy officers or retired admirals and commanded the merchant ships but not the escorts of a convoy. He later captained two escort carriers, HMS Dasher during her commissioning period and the trials carrier HMS Pretoria Castle. He died in 1966.

 

[1] W. A. Raleigh, H. A. Jones, The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1922). vol. i, pp. 371-76.

[2] Ibid. vol. i, pp. 392-93

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The Silent War Part 1 – BBC

On 5 December 2013 the BBC broadcast the first episode of a two-part series called The Silent War, which dealt with a secret underwater espionage war that the UK and USA fought against the USSR during the Cold War. The BBC website describes the first episode, titled Know Your Enemy, as follows:

For decades, Britain and America’s Cold War submarines waged a secret war of espionage against the Soviet navy. Deep in the ocean, crews were locked in a game of cat and mouse as each side battled to gain the tactical and technological advantage.

After decades of silence, submariners from both the east and west are now allowed to talk more openly than ever before about how they plotted to win the war beneath the waves. The west’s superior technology allowed them to secretly shadow the Soviet fleet, at close quarters, giving them vital intelligence and the upper hand if war broke out.

Shadowing submarines was dangerous. The film explores close encounters between western and Soviet forces that put the lives of submariners at risk. Candid interviews with British, American and Russian submariners reveal the pressures of lengthy underwater patrols that drove them to the edge of their physical and mental limits.

1950s submarines were little advanced from those of WWII. They were still powered by diesel-electric engines on the surface and rechargeable batteries underwater, limiting the time that they could stay submerged and the speed that they could travel at when underwater. Water supplies were restricted, meaning that even junior officers such as Sandy Woodward, later commander of the RN task force that recaptured the Falkland Islands in 1982, were unable to wash whilst at sea. Much of their time was spent giving anti-submarine training for their own side.

NATO was heavily outnumbered on the ground, and had little hope of resisting a Soviet land offensive by conventional weapons. Dr Owen Cote of MIT pointed out that this meant that nuclear weapons were to NATO an ‘incredibly attractive’ way of deterring the Soviets and preserving the status quo. In the 1950s these would be delivered by aircraft or land based missiles. However, the launch of Sputnik, the world’s first satellite, by the USSR in 1957 left the USA vulnerable to nuclear attack, meaning that its land missiles could be destroyed before they could be launched.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower therefore decided that submarine based nuclear ballistic missiles were required, but the necessary technology did not then exist. Nuclear powered submarines were developed, which were armed with Polaris nuclear ballistic missiles capable of destroying a Soviet city from over 2,000 miles away. They were twice as fast underwater as diesel-electric submarines, and could stay submerged indefinitely. They produced their own water, and the only constraint on their time at sea was food supply. One US nuclear submariner told his wife that in wartime he would be safer on his submarine than she was at home.

The USSR needed to develop its own nuclear missile submarines, but struggled to do so. In the interim it tried to establish a land base for nuclear missiles closer to the USA, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Soviet forces sent to Cuba included four Foxtrot class submarines, which were powered by diesel-electric engines, but each armed with a torpedo with a nuclear warheads. They were detected by SOSUS, a system secretly laid by the USA in the Atlantic to detect submarines. The USN harassed them, forcing them to surface. They would have been destroyed had it been a shooting war, and returned home in disgrace.

This experience convinced the Soviets that they needed nuclear powered missile submarines of their own, building 34 of the Project 667A class in five years. Both sides could destroy the enemy’s land based bombers and missiles, but not its nuclear missile submarines. They were the ideal weapon for the strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction, which meant that neither side would attack the other because it would be destroyed in retaliation. In what was an ideological conflict neither planned to attack, but both feared that they would be attacked. Cote argued that nuclear missile submarines actually made the world more secure, because they deterred both sides from attacking.

Britain launched its first ballistic missile submarines in 1966. Its submarine service worked extremely closely with the American one, with submarines from both countries being based on the west coast of Scotland. Submarines from all three navies went on long patrols, trying to remain undetected. Only a very few officers knew exactly where they were. British captains had sealed orders telling them when to fire. Soviet ones did not know which enemy cities their missiles were aimed at.

By 1970 NATO was concerned at the growing size of the Soviet Navy, fearing that there was no reason for the USSR, which had invaded Czechoslovakia two years before, to have such a large fleet unless it intended to use it. A plan to detect and track all Soviet missile submarines so that they could be destroyed before launching their missiles in the event of war was therefore devised.

Soviet missiles had a range of only 1,300 miles, compared with 2,500 for the Polaris ones used by the RN and USN, so Soviet submarines had to cross the Atlantic in order to be in a position to fire on the USA. SOSUS could detect them, and was now so sophisticated that it could identify different types of submarine. However, NATO needed to know the as much as possible about the acoustic signatures of the Soviet submarines.

In order to obtain this information hunter killer submarines were used to closely track Soviet submarines. The hunter killer boats were also nuclear powered, but armed with only torpedoes, so were smaller and stealthier than the missile submarines. The programme implied that they were a new type, but in fact they predated the missile boats. From 1975, however, the RN and USN hunter killers were given a new role, which was to track Soviet missile submarines in the Atlantic.

The Soviet submarines were first detected by SOSUS. An RN or USN hunter killer submarine would then be ordered to get as close to the Soviet boat as possible, exploiting its advantages of being quieter and having twice the detection range. The objective was to gather as much information as possible about the acoustic signature of the Soviet submarine.

This was dangerous work because the two submarines were so close to each other. One British boat was badly damaged in a collision with what its crew were told was an iceberg. Lord Owen, a former government minister, admitted that it was a Soviet submarine, but the Ministry of Defence has never officially confirmed this. Crews from all three navies were banned from talking about their missions at the time.

NATO was also concerned by the Kiev, the USSR’s first aircraft carrier, which was armed with eight cruise missiles with nuclear warheads as well as aircraft, and was faster than any submarine. In 1977 HMS Swiftsure, Britain’s newest submarine, was sent north to the Barents Sea to gather information on her acoustic signature. This was a difficult and dangerous mission as Swiftsure had to go into the Soviet Northern Fleet’s home waters.

Submarines have their interior lit by only dim red lighting when it is dark outside as it is essential that the light at the bottom of the periscope is at least as dark as that at the top, or else it will be impossible to see anything after dark. As there is only an hour’s daylight per day so far north at that time of the year Swiftsure had only red lighting all day for almost two months.

Her task was made even harder because the Soviets were conducting a major naval exercise when she entered the Barents Sea. However, she was able to get close enough to Kiev to take photographs through the periscope, and to obtain full details of her acoustic signature. This would have enabled NATO to detect and sink her before she got close enough to Europe to fire her missiles in wartime.

This fascinating programme concluded by arguing that the RN and USN hunter killer submarines for two decades obtained vital intelligence that gave NATO ‘a priceless strategic advantage.’ The second episode, to be broadcast on BBC2 at 9 pm on Thursday 12 December, covers the Soviet fight back, weapons under the ice and a disaster at sea.

No overseas co-producers were listed, so those outside the UK will have to hope that their local stations buy it.

There are profiles of  some of the submariners interviewed on the BBC website. For UK viewers it is available on the I-Player until 19 December and is repeated at 11:20 pm on BBC2 on 11 December and at 3:15 am on BBC2 on 22 December: the latter showing may have signing for the deaf, as repeats of BBC programmes in the early hours of the morning often do so. The second episode is on BBC2 at 9:00 pm on Wednesday 12 December.

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Japanese attack on Shanghai 8 December 1941

The Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 is extremely well known, but far fewer people know that the Japanese also attacked British and US warships at Shanghai without declaring war. This took place on the same day, although it was 8 December in Shanghai because it was on the other side of the International Date Line.

Britain and the USA both then maintained small naval forces on the Yangtze River in order to protect their interests in China. These included the Shanghai International Settlement, an autonomous district of the city inhabited by Westerners. It was originally protected by British soldiers, US Marines and Royal Navy and United States Navy gunboats, but most of these had been withdrawn by December 1941.

Japan and China had been at war with each other since 1937, when China began to fully resist Japanese encroachments into her territory that had begun in 1931.

By 8 December 1941 the British and US military presence in Shanghai had been reduced to the gunboats HMS Peterel and the USS Wake, which both had skeleton crews as they were being used primarily as communications stations. Even at full strength they would have stood no chance against the Japanese forces present, which included the cruiser HIJMS Izumo;

The Wake displaced 350 tons, normally carried a crew of 59 and was armed with two 3″ guns and eight 0.3″ machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 14, most of them reservist radiomen. Her captain was Lt Cdr Columbus D. Smith, USNR.

Peterel displaced 310 tons, normally carried a crew of 55 and was armed with two 3″ AA guns and eight machine guns. On 8 December she had a crew of only 21 British sailors, plus 19 Chinese locals. Her captain was Lieutenant Stephen Polkinghorn RNR, a 62 year old New Zealander. As an officer in the Royal Naval Reserve, he would have been a merchant navy officer in peacetime.

Neither ship could use her 3″ guns because their crews were small and consisted mostly of radiomen rather than gunners. They could fire the machines guns, but lacked the specialist training needed to operate the bigger guns.

Izumo, sometimes called Idzumo, was an elderly ship that had fought at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. She displaced 9,750 tons and in December 1941 was armed with four 8″ guns, eight 6″ guns, four 3″ guns and one 3″ AA gun. The website linked at the start of this paragraph gives her armament when built.

The Japanese attacked Wake 2 hours after the start of the attack on Pearl Harbor. She had not been informed of events in Hawaii, so was taken by surprise and her crew captured.

Peterel was warned by the British Consulate of the attack on Pearl Harbor, so was at action stations. Polkinghorn had orders to scuttle her if the Japanese attempted to capture her, and she was rigged with demolition charges.

A launch full of Japanese Marines approached Peterel. Polkinghorn, trying to win time in order to scuttle his ship and destroy his code books, allowed their officers on board and invited them to discuss matters. They refused to talk, so he ordered them to ‘Get off my bloody ship!’

The Japanese officers returned to their launch, and Izumo, other Japanese warships and shore batteries opened fire. Peterel could return fire only with machine guns, but killed several Japanese, presumably in the launch. Her crew was ready to repel borders with pistols and cutlasses, in the style of Nelson’s navy.

Peterel was sunk, and her crew abandoned ship. Six were killed, some in the water, but 12 managed to get to a Norwegian officered and Panamanian flagged merchant ship, the SS Marizion. The Japanese took them off, and they became PoWs, along with two of the three crewmen who were ashore at the time. Two of the PoWs died in the appalling conditions of Japanese prison camps.

The third man, Chief Petty Officer Telegraphist James Cuming joined an American Chinese spy ring and remained at liberty for the rest of the war.

This account of the sinking of Peterel  is based on an account on the website of the Children and Families of Far East Prisoners of War, a list of casualties and survivors given on the website of the Force Z Survivors Association and a newspaper obituary of Peterel’s last survivor, Able Seaman James Mariner, who died in 2009 at the age of 90. It describes him as being the first British serviceman to fire on the Japanese during WWII

Lt Polkinghorn was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross when he returned from captivity after the war. Other members of the crew may also have deserved medals, but the RN is not generous with gallantry awards, and often decorates the captain of a ship as a tribute to the entire crew. Britain has no award equivalent to a US Presidential Unit Citation.

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HMS Shannon Captures the USS Chesapeake, 1 June 1813.

Admiral Sir John Warren took command of Royal Navy forces in North America and the Caribbean in September 1812. By the end of March 1813 he had blockaded the Chesapeake and the Delaware. On 23 March the Admiralty sent him orders to expand the blockade to cover all the American coast.

The British objectives were to defend their trade and to end the war by economic means. Warren would soon have ten 74 gun ships of the line, 30 frigates and 80 smaller ships, which the Admiralty believed would allow him to carry out these tasks, allowing for a third of his ships being under repair and refit at any time. An attack on New Orleans would have made strategic sense, but Warren had only two battalions of Royal Marines, each of 6-700 men. [1]

The British did carry out limited amphibious operations; an attack on the Delaware from 29-31 May resulted in the capture of destruction of over 20 ships.

The US 44 gun frigates were more powerful than any of Warren’s frigates, but would have stood no chance against a British 74. This meant that much of the United States Navy was trapped in harbour. In April the USS President and Congress managed to exit Boston in fog, but had taken only a dozen prizes by September, when they returned to Newport; much of British commerce was sailing in well escorted convoys. In late May the USS United States, Macedonian and Hornet tried and failed to get out of New York

James Lawrence had commanded the USS Hornet when she sailed with the USS Constitution in the cruise that resulted in the capture of HMS Java. On 24 February 1813 the Hornet encountered the brig HMS Peacock. Both ships were armed principally with carronades, which were very powerful but short range guns, so a short range battle ensued.

As with most naval actions in the War of 1812, the more powerful ship won; in this case it was the Hornet, which carried 32 pound carronades; the Peacock had 24 pounders.  Lawrence was promoted from Master Commandant to Captain. He was initially promised command of the 44 gun frigate USS Constitution, then under refit, but this was changed to the 38 gun frigate USS Chesapeake, then at Boston. Lawrence was annoyed at being switched to a smaller ship, but the Chesapeake was ready for sea. Andrew Lambert notes that her crew was ‘a remarkably experienced team of deep-sea mariners.’[2]

Lawrence took command on 20 May, and spent the next 11 days exercising his gun crews. He also replaced some of the weaker officers. He was aware that there was a British frigate off Boston, so the Chesapeake prepared for action on 31 May before sailing the next day.

The British ship was the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon, commanded by Captain Philip Broke. He had carefully studied naval tactics, realising the importance of accurate gunnery and skilful manoeuvre. His gun crews were trained to a high level of efficiency; they could target the masts to immobilise the enemy ship or the decks to kill the crew. He paid for adjustments to the guns with his own money ; the decks were marked to enable every gun to concentrate fire on the same point.

Broke had sent a challenge to Lawrence to a single ship contest. Lawrence had himself challenged HMS Bonne Citoyenne to combat whilst commanding the Hornet, but did not receive Broke’s letter as he had sailed before it arrived.

Shannon had been accompanied by another frigate, HMS Tenedos, but Broke, realising that the Chesapeake would not engage two frigates, had detached her to guard another exit in case Chesapeake tried to slip out under cover of fog.

The two ships were evenly balanced, so the battle would depend on luck and skill.

Shannon had 52 guns, with a broadside of 26: 28 18 pounders, four 9 pounders, one 6 pounder, 16 32 pound carronades and three 12 pound carronades. Her crew was 330, 30 of them raw.

The Chesapeake had 50 guns, with a broadside of 26: 28 18 pounders firing on the broadside and one ahead, two 12 pounders, 18 32 pound carronades and one 12 pound carronade. Her crew was 379.

The US ship had a slight advantage in nominal weight of fire, but was outgunned by a little if Theodore Roosevelt’s belief that US shot was about 7 per cent less than its nominal value is accepted. Either way, the advantage was not decisive.[3]

The Chesapeake left Boston at 1 pm on 1 June, heading towards Shannon; the visibility was excellent, so both ships could see the other clearly.  In previous frigate actions the Americans had fired at long range, not closing until the enemy was badly damaged. However, the Chesapeake did not have the firepower advantage that the 44 gun US frigates enjoyed. Getting in close had worked for Lawrence when the Hornet had defeated HMS Peacock.

Broke did not want to fight close to Boston, where US gunboats might join in, so moved further away, stopping once Shannon was 15 miles away from Boston and out of sight. The Chesapeake was then 4 miles away and closing. At 5:10 Broke spoke to his crew, encouraging them and ordering his gunners to fire into the enemy hull to kill the American gunners and destroy the guns, rather than trying to dismast her.

At 5:30 it appeared that the Chesapeake might try to cross Shannon’s stern, allowing her to rake the British ship, which would result in devastating damage to her hull. Broke reacted quickly to prevent this happening, but Lawrence was probably intending to fight broadside to broadside; he had loaded his guns with ammunition suitable for destroying the Shannon’s rigging rather firing into her hull.

At 5:40 the American crew gave three cheers, but the British remained silent. Broke believed in fighting as quietly as possible, so that orders could be heard clearly. Lawrence, assuming that he intended to use the tactics that had worked against HMS Peacock, would have aimed to destroy Shannon’s lower rigging. The Chesapeake could then have sat on Shannon’s quarter, firing all her broadside against only a few of the immobilised British ship’s guns. Broke moved to forestall this, and brought his ship broadside to broadside with the American, 40-50 yards apart.

The British opened fire at 5:50; the Americans quickly replied, but many of their gunners were already dead. The Americans scored hits on Shannon, notably on her lower rigging, but were having the worse of the battle. The Chesapeake was sailing faster, with the result that she exposed her stern to the British; her wheel was shot away, and she suffered heavy casualties amongst her officers and petty officers. At one stage it seemed as if the Chesapeake might escape, but she then lost way. A cartridge box exploded on her deck at 5:58.

A boarding action was risky, but Lawrence realised that it was his last option. However, heavy casualties meant that few men answered his call for boarders. He was then mortally wounded, saying ‘Don’t give up the ship’ as he fell.[4]

At 6:00 the ships collided, with one of the British anchors attaching itself to the American port quarter. William Stevens, the British boatswain tied the ships together, losing an arm in the process.

At 6:02 pm Broke led a boarding party onto the Chesapeake; the US Marines tried to resist, but 14 out of 44 had been killed and 20 wounded. Lieutenant George Budd tried to rally the American crew, but was wounded. Broke said that the Americans ‘fought desperately, but in disorder.’[5]

The fighting was apparently over in a couple of minutes. However, three US sailors, perhaps RN deserters who would be executed if taken alive, attacked Broke, inflicting a severe head wound on him. The trio were quickly killed. Broke fell into some quicklime, which had leaked from a barrel hit by a cannon ball. It was used by the Americans as a disinfectant, and this probably saved Broke’s life.

According to Lambert, the dying Captain Lawrence realised that his ship had been taken and exclaimed ‘Then blow her up! Blow the ship up!’[6] The ships had now drifted apart. A small British ensign was raised on the Chesapeake, but was then lowered, before a larger one was raised. This confused one of Shannon’s gun crews, who re-opened fire, killing George Watt, Shannon’s first lieutenant, and killing or wounding five other British sailors.

The British now held the gun deck, but there were only 70 of them, far fewer than the number of Americans below decks. The ships were less than 20 miles off the US coast. Charles Falkiner, Shannon’s fourth lieutenant, told the Americans that there were 300 British on board, and a boat full of Shannon’s marines arrived, making the prize secure.

The ships were of similar size and firepower, with the Chesapeake having the larger crew. Both had brave captains and experienced crews. The main difference was that Lawrence took over his command 12 days before the action whilst Broke had commanded his ship for seven years, bringing it to a high level of efficiency. Lambert argues that:

‘The Americans had nothing to be ashamed of, their gunnery was good, and they fought bravely, but they were beaten by better men, perhaps the best fighting crew that ever went to sea.’[7]

Theodore Roosevelt gives American casualties as 61 killed and 85 wounded and British as 33 killed and 50 wounded.[8] Lambert says that 48 Americans were killed, 99 wounded and 325, including the wounded, captured. Some, probably British deserters, jumped overboard. He gives British casualties as 26 killed and 58 wounded.[9] Shannon hit the Chesapeake 362 times, and was struck 158 times in return.[10]

The two ships, under the command of Provo Wallis, Shannon’s third lieutenant, were repaired before heading for Halifax, Wallis’s home town, arriving on 4 June. Lawrence died just before the ships entered harbour. Delirious, he had exclaimed ‘Don’t give up the ship’ several times during the voyage.[11]

Lawrence and Augustus Ludlow, one of his lieutenants, were buried in Halifax with full military honours, but were soon moved and reburied in first Salem and then New York.[12]

The Chesapeake became HMS Chesapeake, and served in the RN until 1819. Broke was made a Baronet, but did not serve again at sea because of the severity of his wound, which caused him pain for the rest of his life. He was promoted to Rear Admiral on the grounds of seniority in 1830, dying in 1841. Wallis and Falkner were both promoted to Commander.

Wallis, born in Halifax, Nova Scotia on 12 April 1791, was borne on the books of HMS Oiseau in 1795. The importance of seniority in RN promotion meant influential fathers whose sons intended to join the RN often had them listed on the books of warships years before they went to sea.

Wallis actually went to sea for the first time on HMS Cleopatra in 1805. His last sea going appointment, as C-in-C on the south east coast of South American, ended in 1857. However, he was technically still a serving officer until he died on 13 February 1892, by then Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis. He was on the active list for 96 years, with 52 years of actual service, and was the last surviving British officer to have commanded a warship during the Napoleonic Wars.


[1] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012). Kindle edition, locations 2455-90

[2] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 2802.

[3] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 220-21.

[4] Quoted in Ibid. vol. i, p. 225.

[5] Quoted in Ibid. vol. i, p. 227.

[6] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, locations 3352-53.

[7] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 3574.

[8] Roosevelt, Naval War, p. 228.

[9] Lambert, The Challenge. Kindle edition, location 3419-20.

[10] Ibid. Kindle edition, location 3579.

[11] Ibid. Kindle edition, locations 3435-36

[12] Ibid. Kindle edition, locations 3457-58.

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Royal Navy Too Small?

A recent article in Warships: International Fleet Review, written by Francis Beaufort, its political correspondent, argued that the Royal Navy risks losing critical mass. A pdf of the article can be downloaded from the UK National Defence Association’s website.

The strength of the RN, measured in ships and people, has fallen by two-thirds since the end of the Cold War; in 2004-5 it was about half its Cold War strength.

In 1982, it had two carriers, two assault ships, four ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), 12 nuclear powered attack submarines (SSN), six diesel powered submarines (SSK), 15 destroyers and 46 frigates.

It now has no aircraft carriers, although two are under construction, two helicopter carriers, 2 assault/command ships, three landing ships, four SSBNs, five SSNs in full service with two on sea trials, five destroyers in full service with two more coming into service and 13 frigates.

The number of sailors and marines was 73,000 in 1982 and 36,000 in 2004; there are now only 29,000.

The modern ships are far more capable than their predecessors, but can only be in one place at a time, making it hard for the RN to cover all its responsibilities. Beaufort points out that there is a rule of thumb that only a third of a navy’s warships will be available at any time.

Britain is an island, dependent on overseas trade, and with global responsibilities. We live in times of austerity, but the RN is now at a level where it cannot be cut further, and probably should be expanded, or else its number of tasks must be reduced.

Still, it does not look as if the Argentinian navy is any threat; the mothballed destroyer ARA Santisima Trinidad capsized in harbour earlier this year. Click here for a report and picture.

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Defeat on Land, Victory at Sea: The Hull Family and the USA in 1812

This post follows on from this one on the origins of the War of 1812 between the USA and Britain.

In mid August 1812 the USA suffered a defeat on land and gained a victory at sea in its war with Britain. On 16 August the US garrison of Detroit surrendered to the British. Three days later the USS Constitution captured HMS Guerriere.

The US commanders in these two actions were closely related. Constitution’s captain Isaac Hull’s father died when he was a child. He was then adopted by his uncle William Hull, the man who surrendered Detroit. William was a veteran of the American War of Independence, but had been a civilian ever since. He was appointed a Brigadier-General and given command of the US Northwestern Army because he was governor of Michigan Territory.

The Americans planned to invade Canada early in the war. Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada and acting administrator in absence of Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore, did not want to give up territory. He strengthened the militia and looked for Native American support, which he saw as vital. He immediately attacked Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan and took it on 17 July.

General Hull invaded Canada on 12 July at western end of Lake Erie with a force of only 2,500 men, who were untrained.[1] He advanced on Fort Amherstburg on Lake Erie, which had a garrison of only 300 and lacked civilian support. Hull, whose supplies were threatened by Native Americans, hesitated. Captured papers gave the British had intelligence of his plans and strength.

Four skirmishes between 16 and 26 July decided nothing. Colonel Henry Procter rallied the garrison of Amherstburg and, with the help of the Native American leader Tecumseh, obtained the support of the Wyandot tribe. Hull’s supply line was cut at Brownston on 5 August and at Maguaga 4 days later. He retreated to Detroit. The small US garrison of Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) tried to do the same, accompanied by some civilians, but were attacked and massacred by the Potawatomis.

Hull believed that he faced a large force of Native Americans, so surrendered on 16 August to Brock in order to avoid a massacre. Brock actually had 300 regulars, 400 militia and 600 Natives. Jeremy Black quotes Shadrach Byfield of the British 41st Foot as saying that when asked for a 3 day ceasefire ‘our general replied that if they did not yield in three hours, he would blow up every one of them.’[2]

Hull was court-martialled in August 1814 and sentenced to death for neglect of duty and cowardice, but the court’s recommendation of mercy accepted. Brock was knighted just before being killed at the battle of Queenston Heights on 13 October.

The British did not exploit their success at Detroit. Fort Wayne was besieged by 500 Native Americans in late August, but it was relieved on 12 September. Captain Zachary Taylor, the future US President, beat off an attack on Fort Harrison by Tecumseh on 4 September.

The British captures of Detroit and Fort Mackinac impressed the Native Americans and maintained geographical links with them. They were important to the defence of Canada’s western flank. However, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America and C-in-C of all British forces in North America, moved Brock and many of his troops from Detroit to defend in Niagara.

Black argues that Prevost wanted a ceasefire now that the repeal of the British Orders-in-Council had removed one of the causes of the war. This damaged relations with the Native Americans, as Tecumseh realised that a negotiated peace would be bad for them.[3]

Three days later Hull’s nephew Isaac restored the pride of both his country and his family when his frigate the USS Constitution defeated the British frigate HMS Guerriere.

Captain Hull had been ordered to join Commodore John Rodger’s squadron off New York on the first day of war. Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wanted Rodgers to act cautiously and defend US merchant shipping, but Rodgers saw a chance to act aggressively before British reinforcements arrived. He set sail before Hamilton’s orders arrived, intending to attack a West India convoy.

Rodgers’s squadron consisted of the 44 gun frigate USS President and the 18 gun sloop USS Hornet. He also commanded Commodore Stephen Decatur’s squadron of the 44 gun frigate USS United States, the 38 gun frigate USS Congress and the 16 gun brig USS Argus.

On 23 July Rodgers’s five ships met the 36 gun frigate HMS Belvidera, captained by Richard Byron. He did not know war had been declared, but realised that the US ships were hostile. Belvidera escaped after a brief engagement in which Rodgers was wounded when a gun on the USS President exploded.

Rear Admiral Herbert Sawyer, commanding RN forces at Halifax Nova Scotia, was advised by Augustus Foster, British Minister in Washington, and Andrew Allen, British Consul in Boston, to act cautiously, attacking only US warships, foreign trade and privateers. They hoped for negotiations. US supplies were vital to the British army in Spain. Sawyer in any case had too weak a force to enforce a full blockade.

Captain Philip Broke left Halifax on 5 July. He was captain of the 38 gun frigate HMS Shannon,  and also had  the elderly 64 gun 3rd rate HMS Africa and the 32 gun frigate HMS Aeolus under his command. He intended to meet HMS Belvidera and Guerriere and then engage and defeat Rodgers’s squadron. On 15 July Shannon captured the 14 gun brig USS Nautilus, which became HMS Emulous.

Broke met the USS Constitution on 17 July. The wind was initially light, and four days of manoeuvring ensued, before Hull’s ship escaped thanks to what Andrew Lambert describes as ‘a brilliant display of seamanship, skill and resolve.’[4]

Broke joined a convoy of 60 merchantmen escorted by HMS Thetis, an old 38 gun frigate, on 29 July. He expected Rodgers to attack it, but he was pursuing another convoy, 1,000 miles to the east. Broke escorted the convoy to safety before returning to the American coast, sending Guerriere back to Halifax to repair her masts, which had been damaged by lightning.

Guerriere had been captured from the French in 1806 and was in a poor state of repair. In this period captured ships were often pressed into service by their captors, usually retaining their names unless the captor already had a ship by the original name or found it offensive.

Hull headed for Boston. In the absence of orders he then sailed for the Gulf of St Lawrence to raid British shipping. He planned a long cruise, knowing that he was about to be replaced by William Bainbridge, and bought charts of the Caribbean, Brazil, West Africa and the River Plate.

On 19 August his 44 gun frigate encountered HMS Guerriere, a 38 gun frigate. The number of guns given is an indication of the size of the ship rather than the actual armament carried. The Constitution had 56 guns and the Guerriere 51. The US ship’s main armament comprised 24 pounders, compared with 18 pounders on her British opponent.

Both ships also carried carronades. These were short barrelled guns of great power but short range, so-called because they were first produced by the Carron Ironworks in Scotland. Some US 44 gun frigates carried 42 pound carronades, but both these ships had 32 pound carronades.

According to Alfred Mahan, the USS Constitution’s broadside was 736 pounds versus 570 pounds for HMS Guerriere.[5] Theodore Roosevelt claimed that US shot was shown to be 5-9 per cent lighter than its nominal value .He took the midpoint of 7 per cent and reduced the Constitution’s broadside to 684 pounds, compared to 556 pounds for Guerriere. He stated that the American ship had a crew of 456 against 272 on the British vessel, excluding 10 Americans who took no part in the fighting[6]. Andrew Lambert describes the Constitution as being 50 per cent more powerful than Guerriere.[7] [p. 79]

The official reports of both Hull and Captain James Dacres, commanding Guerriere, are available online. The two ships sighted each other at 2 pm on 19 August. Dacres realised that the other ship was a warship at 3 pm and beat to quarters, the sailing age equivalent of the modern sounding of action stations/general quarters. Hull recognised Guerriere to be what he called ‘a large frigate’ at 3:30.

At 4:30 Hull shortened sail, making his ship slower but easier to manoeuver and a steadier gun platform. Dacres claimed that he opened fire at 4:10 with his starboard batteries. He then manoeuvred to bring his port batteries into action; port was then referred to as larboard. He times the USS Constitution’s reply at 4:20. Hull says that the first British broadside came at 5:05. Roosevelt puts the first broadside at 5 pm, citing HMS Guerriere’s log, so it is likely there is an error in Dacres’s report. Times quoted hereafter are from Hull’s report.

Until 6 pm HMS Guerriere manoeuvred so as to bring both her batteries into action, but caused little damage. Hull took great care to ensure that his ship was not raked, which means firing down the length of a ship from its bows or stern. The target is smaller than if the side is fired on, so is harder to hit, but hits will pass through more of the ship, thus causing more damage. A stern rake is more damaging than a bow one, because the bow is curved and stronger, so deflects some of the shots.

At 6:05 Hull commenced a heavy fire with all his guns from pistol shot range. This caused heavy damage, whilst the British reply did little damage. Some British shots reputedly bounced off the Constitution’s wooden sides, giving her the nickname of “Old Ironsides”.

A TV documentary called Master and Commander: The True Story attributed this to the quality and thickness of the wood used in her construction. It came partly from southern live oak. a type of tree found only in the Americas, which is much stronger than the white oak used in British ships. The programme was shown in the UK by Channel 5 on 12 April 2012, but was made by the Discovery Channel.

Within 15 minutes Guerriere’s mizzen mast, the rear of her three masts, fell to starboard. It dragged in the water, slowing her and acting like a rudder to turn her to starboard. Hull then manouevred the Constitution to rake Guerriere. The rigging of the two ships became entangled and both prepared boarding parties. A number of men, including Dacres, were wounded by musket fire, but the sea was too heavy for either side to board the other.

Guerriere’s fore and main masts than fell, leaving her helpless. Hull decided to back off and repair the damage to his ship. Half an hour later he returned to the Guerriere. It was too dark to see if she was still flying her colours, so Hull sent Lieutenant Reed in a boat to see if Guerriere had surrendered. Reed returned with Dacres, who had surrendered as his ship was immobile.

The British prisoners were taken on board the Constitution the next day. The Guerriere was too badly damaged to take to port so at 3 pm, so Hull had her set on fire and destroyed at 3 pm. US casualties were seven killed and seven wounded. British ones were 23 killed and 56 wounded. The Constitution ought to have won, given her greater strength, but a less skilful captain than Hull could have lost more men in doing so.

Hull returned to Boston on 30 August as a hero, his ship full of prisoners and wounded. This was the first good news for the USA in the war. The British were not used to defeat at sea and took the news badly, ignoring the fact that Guerriere had been beaten by a stronger ship. According to Andrew Lambert:

Hull had handled his ship very well, exploiting his advantages to the full. Amid the euphoria, and without the prize to prove otherwise, most chose to celebrate Hull’s victory as a fair and equal contest…Instead of pausing for reflection, an unthinking British press blindly accepted the idea of humiliating defeat; the Times blustered that the Navy’s ‘spell of victory’ had been shattered.’[8]

The Americans needed a victory and defeats for the RN were rare in this period. Focus on the fact than the Constitution versus Guerriere was not a contest of equals obscures the major impact of the US victory on American morale.

Dacres was court-martialled, a normal procedure for RN captains who had lost their ships. He was acquitted and given another command in 1814 and later promoted. Lambert points out that his only way of saving his ship was to run away, in which case he would have been ‘cashiered or shot.’ He adds that the Admiralty, short of sailors, were more worried about the loss of men than the loss of an old and worn out ship.’[9]

Rodgers returned to Boston the day after Hull, having captured only 7 merchantmen. His cruise was curtailed by scurvy. Most US frigates were in Boston by early September. The exceptions were the USS Constellation, which was under repair at Washington DC, and the USS Essex.

The Essex, captained by David Porter, carried out a successful cruise, capturing 10 prizes. Porter valued them at $300,000, a figure that Lambert suspects is too high, while accepting that the cruise was very successful.[10] Porter encountered HMS Shannon and a prize that he misidentified as another warship on 4 September. He evaded them and, unable to get into Boston or New York, made for the Delaware River.


[1] Force sizes are from J. Black, The War of 1812 in the Age of Napoleon (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2009), pp. 61-64.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 64.

[3] Ibid., pp. 65-66.

[4] A. D. Lambert, The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812 (London: Faber, 2012), p. 72.

[5] A. T. Mahan, Sea Power in Its Relations to the War of 1812, 2 vols. (London,: Samson Low, Marston, 1905). vol. i. p. 334.

[6] T. Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812, 2 vols. (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900-2). vol. i, pp. 82-88.

[7] Lambert, The Challenge, p. 79.

[8] Ibid., p. 78.

[9] Ibid., p. 79.

[10] Ibid., p. 81.

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